Classes are back in session after spring break and several new students and teachers are walking the hallways, taking classes, and learning new educational techniques and skills at Crispus Attucks High School and Henry W. Longfellow Medical/STEM Middle School 28.
Eighteen students and teachers from Mexico, who crossed the border with temporary visas in hand, are in Indianapolis participating in the district’s longest-running cultural exchange program.
While living with IPS students and teachers (who are serving as host families), these visitors will be immersed in the local culture — from field trips, including a visit to the state house and the Mexican Consulate, to exploring the food, music and way of life in the Midwest.
The district is returning the hospitality received when IPS staff and students visited Mexico in October.
During fall break, more than 20 students and teachers from Crispus Attucks and Longfellow spent two weeks in Tlaxcala, Mexico, staying with some of the same Mexican students and teachers who are here in Indianapolis.
It’s a cultural exchange program, steeped in discovery and understanding, that’s been in existence for 19 years. But because of the current political climate, there were some unexpected setbacks on both sides this year.
Longfellow Principal Stacy Coleman said that while in Mexico, a planned trip to the capital city was canceled due to protests. And because of stricter boarder laws, not all of the Mexican students were able to visit Indianapolis. (This was also the first time in two years that IPS delegates were able to visit Tlaxcala. The previous two trips were canceled because of heightened security issues.)
“Some of the Mexican students couldn’t come because their visas were denied,” said Claudia Montes, an IPS college and career readiness coordinator who’s helping organize this part of the exchange program. “So, for the students from Mexico, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Even with the political barriers, the cultural exchange program is an enriching experience for both the IPS and Mexican delegates.
Tlaxcala is a small city in central Mexico surrounded by colorful Mayan frescoes and ancient pyramids. The city features beautiful architecture and murals, which highlight the local history.
Attucks and Longfellow students and staff explored much of the city, while learning about family life during their stay with host families — who ranged from farmers to police officers. They also spent time in Mexican schools, with Longfellow delegates attending the same school each day. Attucks delegates attended a different high school daily.
“It was really nice to go to the different schools (in Mexico) because each school has its own specialty,” said Emily Salinas, an ESL teacher at Attucks and coordinator of the Mexican Cultural Exchange program. “One day we learned how to change oil in a car, another day we learned how to make cheese (because they have a culinary program), and we also did a few medical things. … They really roll out the red carpet, and take us everywhere. It’s an amazing experience.”
Salinas said when the program began in 2000, with the late IPS educator Pam Gemmer as the coordinator, it was more about creating sister schools. Today, the program offers a total immersive experience.
This was the first year Longfellow — an Crispus Attucks feeder school — participated in the program, and Coleman said it was an unbelievable experience.
“Often in urban education, our students’ lives are in just the city center. When we talk about going on field trips, our students say that they’ve never traveled outside of the city,” said Coleman. “So, to see and hear what they experienced in Mexico was amazing.”
In fact, it’s the best trip Coleman said she’s ever been on — that includes her extensive travel experience to other countries. The reason?
“I’ve never been so out of my comfort zone but felt so comfortable. The people and families were just so humble, they made us feel comfortable in their homes, and they treated our kids like their kids,” she said.
IPS staff and host families have planned the same level of attention.
The Achiever will follow the Mexican delegation throughout their visit. In the meantime, here are excerpts from Attucks students about their stay in Mexico.
Olivia Phillips, senior
“This was my second year going to Mexico. I always loved traveling, so when information about the program came out, I was like, ‘This looks like something I want to do.’ I tried it and have been going every year.”
Olivia, who has traveled throughout the country and internationally with her mom, said she doesn’t speak Spanish well. “I Google translate fluently.”
Host Family: My first year I was living with a younger student, so we couldn’t really connect because of the age difference. But it was a good experience. This year, I stayed with a family where the student and I were the same age; we connected and understood each other more.
Experience: My first year going was kind of a culture shock. … Overall, it was great for me. I liked the city and how they live, with all generations in one house – even the aunts and cousins, they all live under one roof.
This experience has changed me because it made me a lot more open-minded and patient with people (because of the language barrier). It also made me very grateful because there are a lot of things in America that I take for granted that people in Mexico don’t have.
Faith Harrington, junior
“I wanted to go to Mexico to see something different,” said Faith, who went on her first trip this year but served as a host the previous two years.
Host Family: My family took me out to a restaurant the first day. When they cooked, they tried to feed me a bunch of food, but their food is so pure that I was getting full faster. In their culture, having a second plate is a sign that you really like the food, but I couldn’t do it. … They’re close knit, funny and crack jokes. The family I lived with had live goats and chickens, which took some getting used to.
Experience: Mexico is nothing like you hear on TV and in the news. They are really caring people; they feed you all the time and they spend money on that. They’re letting foreigners in their house. I wasn’t nervous. But I prayed about it and I felt secure and safe.
Payton Owens, 2018 alumnae
“I like exploring different cultures and people. I had never been out of the country before participating in the cultural exchange program,” said Payton. “I’ve gained real friendships with people in Mexico, I’ve learned about their culture, and I’ve improved my Spanish. I’ve learned a lot about how they live.”
Host Family: They welcomed me with open arms. They fed me so much, and the food was so good. This will be my fourth year hosting a student. Because I’m in college, my student will attend Attucks during the day.
Experience: It’s made me more humble and open-minded to people’s situations, which has made me a better person. My advice to students thinking about participating in the program is to do it. They will experience so much more than what’s in the United States; it’s just a different lifestyle. Going will make them enjoy life so much more and be grateful for what that have here.